16 May 2021

St Mary’s Basilica, Sydney, 16 May 2021

It’s God’s big tick to Jesus. The resurrection and ascension vindicate His earthly life, confirm His divinity, and testify to the truth of His teaching.[1]

But in modernity such tales are an embarrassment. The person and teachings of Jesus are inspiring, we are told, but if you don’t want to lose people it’s best to downplay the hard-to-believe bits like the Virgin Birth and life after death, and the hard-to-live bits like moral absolutes, virtue and holiness… As for tales of a dead man returning, breaking out of his tomb, appearing to his mates, and then flying through the air: what self-respecting child of the scientific age could believe that?

Yet the Gospels present Jesus’ Death and Resurrection as the most crucial thing about Him. It’s better attested than almost any other event of ancient times. There is, for instance, far more evidence of this than of the deaths of Julius Caesar and Augustus.[2] “After His passion,” our first reading records, “Jesus showed Himself alive to the apostles by many demonstrations: for forty days He continued to appear to them” (Acts 1:1-11 at v.3).

What were these ‘demonstrations’ or ‘convincing proofs’? First, though tight shut with a huge rock and under guard of Roman soldiers, the tomb was found unoccupied on the third day.[3] Angels, women, apostles, soldiers, Jewish leaders and the apostolic generation all testified to the empty tomb.[4]

Correggio, Noli me Tangere (1525), Prado Museum, Madrid

:Thereafter Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, John, James and Paul, to the holy women, the Emmaus two, the seven who went fishing, the Eleven, and a much bigger crowd.[5] There’s no reason to think these were all fantasists or spin doctors. And if we rely upon the Gospels for so much else, why regard them as suddenly unreliable come the last chapter?

No doubt the stories were intended to inform and persuade.[6] But were the writers concocting a fiction, they’d surely have claimed more respectable witnesses than grieving women and cowardly fishermen. You’d expect visions of a dazzling white Jesus exalted on the clouds rather than tattooed with marks of the Passion and mundanely eating fish with His friends. That these very ordinary witnesses, events and doubts are presented so candidly suggest the New Testament accounts tried to tell it as it was.

But wasn’t it all just wishful thinking? Well, the Apostles very clearly did not wish for it. Though there were intimations of resurrection in the Old Testament,[7] and though Jesus had predicted this for Himself before He died,[8] the disciples had no idea what it meant. So, when reports of sightings started to filter in, they were incredulous.[9]

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Thomas (1602), Sans Souci Museum, Potsdam

:So Jesus came close, again and again: He was seen, heard, touched. He met and ate with them. One by one they were convinced by ‘the demonstrations He gave’.[10]

Thirdly, the disciples changed radically, from cowering wrecks to courageous evangelists. Short of something extraordinary, this is hard to explain. Were it mass hallucination, the bubble would eventually have burst. Were the body stolen by Jews or Romans, it would surely have been produced to discredit the new religion. For the disciples to have stolen it themselves would have required them to circumvent the soldiers, roll away the stone, snatch the body away unnoticed, and evade the authorities’ search for it. Even if they could manage all this, such deception would render inexplicable their change of heart and behaviour, their willingness to suffer and die for their new mission. How would the Apostles have come to believe that the Master had conquered death if they still had His corpse hidden away somewhere?

Fourthly, the disciples recognised that Christ’s credibility and theirs stands or falls on whether He really rose from the dead (e.g. 1Cor ch. 15). They could easily have put this claim aside as one unlikely to convince sophisticated audiences and likely to get them into trouble. Yet they testified to the Resurrection above all. They had come to believe it was the fulfilment of messianic prophecy and the foundational fact of their new Gospel.[11] It drove all that followed.

Fifth and finally, then, the truth of the Christian faith, the beauty of the Church, and the goodness of her members are all predicated on the Resurrection. It is the sine qua non of Christianity and was the basis of its phenomenal growth.[12] Each one must judge for themselves whether this was lie, delusion or truth, and evidence alone will not bring people to faith: at best it prepares people for faith or confirms them in it. But every institution and system known to history built upon a monstrous lie has ultimately crumbled. The longest-standing one – the Catholic Church – was built upon the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

:Having abandoned Christianity in his teens, the English academic and writer C.S. Lewis was a sceptic through his 20s, declaring belief in miracles and the resurrection “a kind of nonsense”. Yet he kept reading and, as he later admitted, that’s dangerous for someone who wants to remain an atheist. The ‘unscrupulous God’, as he called Him, laid traps for him: in books like the Bible, indubitable facts, surprises galore.[13] Under the influence of his devout Catholic friend J.R.R. Tolkien and having wrestled with the evidence for years, Lewis had a crisis of unfaith in his 30s and found himself dragged back to Christianity “kicking, struggling, resentful.” The God he “so earnestly desired not to meet” became irresistible and His resurrection undeniable. Lewis’ resulting works The Problem of Pain (1940), The Screwtape Letters (1942) and Mere Christianity (1952), became classics of Christian apologetics.

What persuaded Lewis and others[14] were the “many demonstrations” that Jesus offered of His resurrection in the body, not merely in myth or memory. But all records agree that these Easter appearances came to an abrupt end after forty days.[15] To say Christ “ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father” is to say His glorification as Son of God and Saviour-King is complete. He is now present to us in a different way: through word and sacrament, Church and saints, above all through the Eucharist in our bodies and the Spirit in our hearts. And as He glorifies His Father in heaven, He exercises His priestly office of intercession for us. (CCC 659-667)

But in returning to the Father did Jesus at last cast off the human nature to which His divine nature had been united since the Annunciation? To put it another way: does the Ascension represent the completion of the Incarnation and Resurrection, or its undoing, a Decarnation and Unresurrection?

Ascension Window, St Mary’s Basilica Cathedral Sydney

Well, all accounts suggest Jesus’ departure was no disappearing act, like someone with a magic ring in a Lewis or Tolkien novel, and no fading away like in a ghost story. He was witnessed ascending heavenward, returning to the Father in His spiritual and material reality. Rather than leaving His body behind, He took our human nature up into the very court of God.

In making us living, bodily beings, God did not put us in a cage from which we might hope one day to escape. No, He made us more than ghosts, more even than angels. He gave us sight and voice, presence and intimacy. Only beings like us can touch the wounds of Christ. And so for us to survive without bodies would be an impoverishment, even vandalism, and God is no vandal. The life of heaven will be all we properly are now and more, not less. So, as Jesus was raised to a new and glorious life, we too will be raised in our totality from grave to glory. For those who doubt God can do this, Jesus is proof!

The Resurrection and Ascension, then, are God’s big tick to Jesus. But they are also His big tick to every human being, from the tiniest to the oldest, as destined for heaven, and so always worthy of awe, respect and care. On earth with the Spirit, then, and to heaven with Christ!

[1] Lk 24:36-49; CCC 638-55; cf. G. Van Noort, The True Religion (Cork: Mercier Press, 1957) Article IV; John Hardon, The Faith (Servant Books, 1995), 79-80.

[2] Regarding this and the subsequent arguments see: Dale Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History (T&T Clark, 2021); Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2nd edn, Eerdmans, 2017); Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (B&H Studies in Christian Apologetics, 2016); Ted Cabal, “Defending the resurrectoion of Jesus: Yesterday, today and forever,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 18(4) (2014) 115-37; William Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 2001); Gary Habermas, The Resurrection of Jesus: An Apologetic (University Press of America, 1984); Gary Habermas & Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004); John Hardon, The Faith (Servant Books, 1995), 79-80; Josh & Sean McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson, 2017); Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010); Lee Strobel, The Case for the Resurrection: A First-Century Investigative Reporter Probes History’s Pivotal Event  (Zondervan, 2010) and The Case for Easter (Zondervan, 2018);Peter van Inwagen, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christain Apologetics (Westview Press, 1997); G. Van Noort, The True Religion (Cork: Mercier Press, 1957), article IV; J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C Cook Publishing, 2013); Peter Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels (Crossway, 2018); N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003).

[3] Mt 16:21-22; 17:9,22-23; 20:17-19; 26:32; 27:62-64; 28:11-15; Mk 8:31-33; 9:9,30-32; 10:32-34; Lk 9:21-22,43-44; 18:31-33; Jn 11:23-28; 14:2-3,19,24; 16:5-7; 17:4-5,11-19; 1Cor 25:3-8.

[4] Mt 28:1,5-10; Mk 16:5-10; Lk 24:4-10,12; Jn 20:2-18; 1Cor ch. 15; Col 1:18 etc.

[5] Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene (Mt 28:9; Mk 16:9-11; Jn 20:11-18), Peter (Jn 21:1-19; 1Cor 15:5), Thomas (Jn 20:24-29), John (Jn 21:20-25) and James (1Cor 15:7), to the holy women (Mt 28:9-10), the Emmaus two (Mk 16:12-13; Lk 24:13-34), the Eleven (Mt 28:16-20; Mk 16:14; Lk 24:36-49; Jn 20:19-23; 1Cor 15:5,7), the seven who went fishing (Jn 21:1-14), five hundred disciples (1Cor 15:6), and lastly to Paul (Acts 9:1-19; 22:6-16; 26:12-23; 1Cor 9:1; 15:8).

[6] Lk 1:2; Jn 20:29; 1Pet 1:8; 2Pet 1:16.

[7] In the Emmaus story Jesus explains how the Old Testament foretold His Passion and Resurrection: Lk 24:25-27. See Matthew Levering, Jesus and the Demise of Death: Resurrection, Afterlife, and the Fate of the Christian (Baylor University Press, 2012), ch. 2, on Jesus’ resurrection accomplishing the end of the exile of Israel. He unpacks texts such as Dt 32:39, 1Sam 2:6, Hos 6:1-2; Ezek ch. 37 and Dan 12:1-3.

[8] Mt 16:21-22; 17:9,22-23; 20:17-19; 26:37,61; 27:62-64; Mk 8:31-33; 9:9,30-32; 10:32-33; 14:27-8,58; Lk 9:21-22,43-45; 18:31-34; Jn 2:19; 12:23-23,27-28; 14:2-3,19,25; 16:5-7; 17:4-5,11-19.

[9] Mt 27:17; Mk 16:8,11,13-14; Lk 24:11,36-43; Jn 20:24-25.

[10] Mt 28:17; Mk 16:4; Lk 24:45; Jn 20:24-29.

[11] Acts 2:24,29-32; 3:18-26; 4:10; 5:30; 7:37; 10:40,43; 13:30,37; 17:3; 23:6-8; 24:14-15,21; 25:19; 26:22-23; 28:23 Rom 4:24-26; 6:4,9; 7:4; 8:11,34; 10:9; 1Cor 6:14; 15:4,12-17; 2Cor 4:14; 5:15; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:20; 2:6; Col 2:12; 1Thess 1:10; 2Tim 2:8; 1Pet 1:21.

[12] Paul in 1Cor 15:17-19, Gal 1:16 etc.; texts of Josephus, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr all refer to the disciples’ experiences with the Risen Lord; the Apostles Creed; Origen, Contra Celsum; CCC 638-658; Wright, The Resurrection.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) and Surprised by Joy (1955).

[14] John Ankerberg and John Weldon give many examples of sceptics turned believers after examining the evidence for the Resurrection in “The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Parts I & II https://static1.squarespace.com/static/515b212de4b08026971fe25d/t/5356b343e4b078fcf096e5a2/1398190915125/ Resurrection+Skeptic+to+Believer.pdf

[15] Mt 16:19-20; Mk 16:19-20; Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:2,6-11; 2:34; 2Cor 12:1-4 (interpretation contested);  Eph 2:6; 4:8-10.

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass for the Feast of the Ascension. For the month of May Pope Francis has asked the entire Church to unite in prayer with Mary our Mother to plead for an end to the pandemic. Thirty shrines were chosen from around the world for the recitation of the Holy Rosary, which will be broadcast in Rome so that the Holy Father can join in.

St Mary’s Basilica in Sydney was chosen as the Marian shrine of our region and today is our turn – hence the statue and candle which was blessed earlier this morning. We have been asked to include the Pope’s intention for an end not only to COVID but also to violence and to human trafficking – hence the banner of St Josephine Bakhita. In praying for an end to violence we might think especially of the Holy Land at this time. I invite those who cannot join the Holy Father and us at 6pm tonight for the Rosary, to join us by livestream or pray with us wherever you are.

As our Easter season draws to its close with the two great feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost I welcome Christ’s Easter People, present physically or virtually!